This man was like the all the other men I’d stopped to speak to this year. He was ten or fifteen years older than me, old enough to be out of the boyfriend box but still shy of the father box. He wasn’t alone- they were never alone – and he was shouting at me in the street.
It’s 10 pm on what was once a school night and I’m walking home from work through a dark and terraced stretch of Ultimo. His name turns out to be Ian and he’s hanging off a wrought iron fence that has been so warped and lifted by roots that it looks like a snapshot of a six-year-old wriggling free from an over-keen parent’s embrace.
There are five guys squished on two stairs just behind him and they’re all holding beer and shouting “Hi,” except for the one furthest at the back who says “Hello.” I remove my headphones and turn around. The streets have been full of shouting men since Cicero but in February I started turning around.
Ian double takes, turns to the men on the steps and says “Ho shit!” with the ‘h’ of ‘oh’ transplanted to wrong end of the exclamation. One of the men slaps another’s shoulder with the back of his hand and turns to face the door, non-beer hand covering his laughing mouth. In all the chats with all the men over the last month or so, not one has expected a response.
It’s not hard to guess why but in case it was, I ask. Most of the guys I speak to agree that although the word they yelled was “hi,” they weren’t actually saying “hi.” “Hi” is a greeting and greetings get responses, at least if you’re interested in the service of polite society. This sort of “hi” is a heckle to a performer who isn’t supposed to break the fourth wall.
The polite response to this sort of “hi” would be to feign deafness and walk by. There’s always a moment just after I turn around when they look at me with eyes that say, “Can we help you?”, and I have to suppress the urge to apologise. They talked to you first, I remind myself, but it feels like I’m shrieking “He started it!”
“Hey,” is all I say to Ian and an eyeball-shifting silence begs to be filled with a sentence like “Where’s the bus stop?”, but I bite my tongue. “Um, hey? How’s your night?” says poor Ian, whose mates have now completely abandoned him to snicker into their longnecks. I start to feel sorry for him, strung out on his own fence like the figurehead of a battleship being scuttled behind him.
Catcalling places women in the same category as statues to piss on or walls to tag
“You seem surprised that I came over,” I say and he laughs. “Yeah,” he says, “I didn’t expect you to.” This is the core of catcalling; for an activity that presents as profoundly interpersonal it has almost nothing to do with the woman at whom it’s directed. If he didn’t expect a response he couldn’t have been talking to me, and I doubt very much that Ian or any of the other men would choose to spend their evenings shouting into an unresponsive street if they were stripped of the backup who loiter on stairs and orbit around pool tables.
It was an act of performance for his mates who assumed and hoped I’d ignore it. Catcalling places women in the same category as statues to piss on or walls to tag – inanimate public property over which dominance can be asserted by groups of men sitting in street-watching rows like bearded Yertle the Turtles ruling all that they see.
I’m bored of the whole experiment and I’m cold and tired so I start to re-headphone and walk away. I step off the kerb and look back at Ian and he mouths “Sorry,” quickly and silently, so the crew behind him will never know.